Wireless Data Networks Zoom Ahead

Integrated wireless data communications will be the catalyst that leads to the pervasive use of mobile information appliances. The wireless data communication infrastructures are in place and the devices that leverage these data services are beginning to become widely available. Whether using a notebook computer with a high-speed wireless modem, a handheld computer with integrated wireless capabilities or a second-generation smart-phone, the wireless data communications options are plentiful.

Until recently, wireless data communications was used primarily for vertical markets that had a heavy dependency on timely communication of information. Penetration of wireless data communication devices and services among delivery and transportation, healthcare and public service industries such as police forces have been widespread.

These industries have been successful in deploying wireless technology within their respective organizations because they have been able to clearly define the return on investment of wireless. However, many other fields that would seem to be natural adopters of wireless data services, such as sales and field force automation, have been slow to jump on the wireless data communications bandwagon.

Where's the ROI?
The primary reason for this lag is that wireless data communications services have historically been very expensive and deployment generally required custom application development. The return on investment was difficult to determine and these deployment obstacles made many companies shy away from the technology altogether. Acceptance within consumer segments was virtually nonexistent for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the technical difficulties in utilizing wireless data communications solutions.

In recent months there have been monumental advancements in wireless data communications and the near future holds even greater promise. The barriers that have stifled wireless data communications are now beginning to be addressed. Flat-rate pricing, lower-priced wireless devices and modems, support for mainstream operating systems and applications and easier configurations have all contributed to bringing wireless data communications into the mainstream.

Older wireless data communications services like low-speed packet-switched networks may be relegated to the vertical market segments that have accounted for their users and revenue streams to date. For the mass market, high-speed wireless data communications networks such as CDMA and Metricom's Ricochet Network are poised to be the leading infrastructures in the new millennium.

The CDMA wireless data network developed by Qualcomm looks to be the wireless data network of choice in the U.S. market. Although the performance of CDMA is 14.4 kilobits per second (Kbps), it consistently maintains that speed. Other networks such as CDPD claim 19.2 Kbps, although average throughput seldom reaches over 14.4 Kbps and is generally below that.

While neither network provides an ideal environment for Web browsing, the capability is there and is significantly faster than other solutions. As CDMA migrates to third generation in 2001, network speeds will jump from 14.4 Kbps to 38.4 Kbps, 64 Kbps, and 115 Kbps in 2000, 2001 and 2002, respectively, and will reach throughput of 2 megabits per second by 2003. Applications such as real-time audio and video will then become viable and open up a whole new range of possibilities.

Sprint to the Finish
The first commercial launch of the wireless CDMA infrastructure was announced in August by Sprint PCS. In the announcement, Sprint outlined plans to offer a family of smart-phones built around CDMA and a technology for accessing Web content on mobile phones called the Wireless Access Protocol (WAP). The WAP browser, available from Phone.com and several other sources, provides a simple interface whereby users can access news, sports, weather, stock and traffic information. Even online banking, travel reservations and other e-commerce capabilities can be created using phones equipped with a WAP browser.

Qualcomm's Thin Phone and Neopoint's 1000 smart-phone, also branded by Sprint as the Sprint NP1000, are among the first publicly available WAP-based mobile phones. While Qualcomm's Thin Phone has a 4-line display, the Neopoint phone provides 11 lines and features many of the personal information management functions found on handheld products, such as the Palm VII.

Sprint's CDMA service went nationwide in September and coverage is similar to Sprint's PCS digital mobile phone service. With the launch of its CDMA network, Sprint also announced a partnership with Yahoo! to provide Internet content to Sprint mobile phone users. Other handset and infrastructure providers have announced WAP-enabled phones, including Motorola, Nextel, AT&T, Ericsson, Nokia and a host of others. Analysts estimate that mobile phone penetration will reach 500 million users by 2003 and the majority of those users will have access to WAP-based content.

Handy Solution
For those enterprise users that want wireless data communications service in a package that is smaller than a notebook, a handheld computer with integrated wireless communications may be just the answer. The first such product is Palm Computing's Palm VII. The Palm VII is only slightly larger than the Palm III and provides an integrated wireless data modem that runs on the BellSouth Intelligent Wireless Network. Using a technology pioneered by Palm Computing known as Web Clipping, Palm VII users are able to access news, sports, weather, stock and travel information from wherever they are.

While Palm Computing should be applauded for the seamless integration and excellent out-of-the-box experience that gets users online in minutes, the Palm VII suffers from first-generation product blues. While Web Clipping is innovative, most users will find that the content leaves them wanting more, and the pricing structure can be very expensive even with only moderate use because BellSouth does not currently offer flat-rate pricing. The Palm.Net service that utilizes the BellSouth Intelligent Wireless Network as its backbone is very slow, generally 4,800 bits per second (bps), and indoor coverage can be very limited.

Other limitations of the Palm VII include its inability to access existing e-mail accounts and synchronization over the Palm.net network. If Palm Computing can address these issues before its competitors, this platform can be very compelling.

In hot pursuit is Handspring, started by the founders and creators of Palm Computing and the enormously successful Pilot. They have created a third-generation handheld computer that supports a variety of integrated wireless data communications modules. By the middle of next year several handheld computer manufacturers are expected to release a variety of products with integrated wireless data communications supporting CDMA, CDPD, Bell South Wireless Data, GSM and a host of other networks.

Going Global
International wireless data networks are available today and advances are being made at a feverish pace. In Europe, GSM continues to provide wireless data access, albeit at speeds of only 9,600 bps. Although this is not acceptable speed for Web browsing, it is sufficient for messaging, including e-mail, short messaging service (SMS- -a capability built into most newer mobile phones) and instant messaging, which is now becoming available to mobile phone and other mobile information appliance users.

As GSM service migrates to General Purpose Radio Service (GPRS), network speeds will increase dramatically, opening the possibility for a host of new applications and services. Japanese wireless carriers are also rolling out enhanced wireless data services built around CDMA and products that will utilize these high-speed networks. NTT DoCoMo recently launched a service called iMode that allows users to reserve airline tickets, check train schedules, send and receive e-mail and instant messages and access the Internet from their mobile phones. NTT DoCoMo has well over a million subscribers and that number grew at a rate of almost 100,000 a week in September.

Wireless data communications in the new millennium is beginning to take shape. Today, the myriad wireless data communications options creates the daunting task of selecting a solution that will meet enterprise needs. While the choices will remain challenging for the next six to 12 months, when the dust settles only a few of wireless data infrastructures will receive mainstream adoption.

CDMA and GPRS appear to be the strongest candidates. But if Metricom delivers on its promise, it could become the leading provider of wireless data access to notebook computer users. But don't count out CDPD and some of the other networks that have been with us for a while. Although they do not deliver on high-speed data access, with aggressive pricing they could win favor among price-sensitive corporate buyers.

Whichever solutions prevail one thing seems certain: Anywhere access to information and messaging services will become an integral part of the business process of the mobile worker in the new millennium.

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